(Photo: Reuters/Carlos Barria)
Talking about Jesus Christ on French Quarter's Bourbon Street in New Orleans is allowed, at least for the moment, because a federal judge has temporarily blocked enforcement of a year-old city law that prohibits preaching at night in the area famous for its revelry.
Attorneys say that there is a good chance that two separate cases, one involving a group of Christians who were arrested during Southern Decadence, an annual gay lifestyle celebration, and another involving a New Orleans pastor who was threatened with an arrest on a different occasion after 30 years of street preaching, will be consolidated into one case prior to an Oct. 1 hearing by a judge.
Alliance Defending Freedom, which is representing Pastor Paul Gros of Vieux Carre Assembly of God Church in the French Quarter, filed a lawsuit and a motion for preliminary injunction Thursday against the City of New Orleans for criminalizing religious speech on Bourbon Street.
"Religious speech is just as important, and just as protected by the First Amendment, as speech about any other subject at any time of day," ADF Legal Counsel Joseph La Rue, who is acting as co-lead counsel, told The Christian Post Monday. "New Orleans cannot make criminals of people simply because they want to talk about their faith."
The ordinance, which was adopted by the city council last year, makes it illegal to "loiter or congregate on Bourbon Street for the purpose of disseminating any social, political or religious message between the hours of sunset and sunrise." Although La Rue said that it appears no one was arrested prior to the incident during the gay pride event, the violation is a misdemeanor with a penalty of up to six months in jail and a $500 fine.
The temporary restraining order on the ordinance was issued by U.S. District Judge Eldon Fallon on Friday (Sept. 21) as well as the date of the preliminary injunction hearing (Oct. 1).
Nine Christian preachers and activists were arrested during Southern Decadence. The Times-Picayune reported that one Christian held a sign reading "God Hates Homos." Other participants shouted what witnesses characterized as slurs, according to the reporter.
The American Civil Liberties Union said it is defending someone separate from the gay pride incident, who was preaching on Sept. 14, according to the Picayune. Police arrested the Rev. Troy Bohn and several others belonging to Raven Ministries.
Gros, whose ministry included street preaching on Bourbon Street every Tuesday and Friday night, was threatened with arrest in May, according to La Rue.
"Sometimes he had a sign that said, 'Jesus Loves You.' Sometimes he might have had a cross, but he would engage people as they walked by. He would just speak about his faith," La Rue said. "He didn't grab anybody. He did not solicit any donations. He didn't try to stop anyone from passing him. He would only keep talking to them if they stopped and engaged in the conversation. He was always polite and never said anything that would be considered disrespectful or hateful."
La Rue said he did not know the reason the city council passed the ordinance and did not want to disclose his speculation "because they would only be guesses." The Oct. 1 hearing will most likely be postponed by a judge in order for ADF to have more time to prepare for the case when consolidated with ACLU's case, he said.
The ADF lawyer said he clearly views this as a First Amendment issue.
"The government simply cannot tell us the subjects that we can't discuss. The First Amendment doesn't allow that," La Rue said. "The city has said 'you can come on to Bourbon Street, you can discuss lots of different things, but not religion. Government isn't allowed to do that to us. We get to decide what we will discuss, not the government."